In October 2020, when Apple CEO Tim Cook shared his outlook on the company’s fourth quarter with Wall Street analysts, he gave major credit to team resilience for the way Apple’s financial performance had exceeded expectations.
“Even though we’re apart, it’s been obvious this year that around the company, teams and colleagues have been leaning on and counting on each other more than in normal times,” he said. “I think that instinct, that resilience has been an essential part of how we have navigated this year.”1
Psychologists who have studied resilience define it typically as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy [and threats].” Each individual’s capacity for personal resilience is highly dependent on the person’s mental and emotional makeup.
The science of team resilience, however, is not so well established. What we have found at Go Forward to Work (GFTW) Institute is that teams’ adaptability under adverse conditions has much more to do with healthy team behavioral norms and strong working relationships within those teams. How well a team learns and grows from change under normal conditions is a massive predictor of how resilient that team will be when exposed to extreme and sustained levels of pressure and adversity.
The implication is that in the new world of work, while it’s important for the team leader to monitor the team’s resilience, the ultimate responsibility for maintaining overall team resilience goes right back to the team members themselves. The whole team must take on the challenge of supporting each other and pulling together when, individually, some members are having a harder time than others in dealing with adversity.
The volatile environment of 2020 pushed employee resilience onto the CEO’s agenda, elevating what had been a traditional issue for HR. “It’s a good time to be in HR, actually,” one HR leader told us in our research. “Finally, our leadership is realizing that our people and their energy matter, and that we in HR are finally being turned to for help in critical business issues.”
Aspects of team resilience are built into the working methodologies we’ve discussed so far. All the best practices of collaboration, inclusion, and agility drive performance through flexibility, iteration, mutual support, and other features that benefit team resilience. High-performing teams are designed to be resilient because team members contract with each other for mutual support through cocreation and co-elevation.
Nonetheless, the fast-paced pivots and other course corrections demanded of high-performing teams can be mentally and physically draining. Events outside the workplace impact every team member differently. To maintain team energy and engagement, we need to lead in ways that boost team resilience while also building reliable structures for mutual support among team members. As a leader, you must take ownership of the resilience of your teams while ensuring that your team members share responsibility for each other’s well-being.
Teams succeed or fail together, and through our own behavior, we can either enhance or diminish our teammates’ resilience. In the following four steps, we show, first, how to gauge your team’s resilience levels and, second, some high-return practices for supporting and encouraging team members to build resilience in the team. Third, we share high-return practices for dealing with acute workplace stressors. And finally, we discuss building a sustainable base of mental health resources that will enable your team to sustain its resilience in the disruptive years to come.
While each of us must take responsibility for our own personal resilience in our lives, resilience in the workplace is best achieved as a team sport. Employee energy is the fuel of any enterprise, and that’s especially true at the team level, where there is a direct connection between team energy and team performance. The central role of teams in business success, their interdependency at the heart of value creation, and a belief in the importance of team resilience have all been core principles of Keith’s coaching practice for twenty years. Teams need to be understood as living organisms, ones whose functional resilience is critical to every organization’s overall health.